The Assange Saga
Ashleigh Berdebes investigates the latest on Julian Assange as he faces extradition to Sweden on accusations of rape and sexual assault.
On Wednesday 30 May, Julian Assange lost his final appeal as a UK Supreme Court ruled in favour of extraditing the Wikileaks founder to Sweden where he is accused of rape and sexual assault.
The press activity surrounding Julian Assange and Wikileaks has been ample, to say the least. So much so, that for many, the facts have become blurred and the timeline has become hazy.
It can be a grueling process to piece the news together as it breaks, even more so when it concerns ‘the most dangerous man in the world’. From affairs as diverse as the US’s new National Defense Authorization Act, Bradley Manning’s legal battle, political machinations in Sweden, and revelations from a U.S ‘shadow CIA’, a big picture is emerging. If anything, the leak of the confidential StratFor emails provided the colouring-in at the end of a protracted game of connect-the-dots.
541 days ago an electronic tag was fastened to the ankle of Julian Assange and ever since he has lived under house arrest in a UK manor home. Though no formal charges have at any point been laid against Assange he has been prohibited from leaving the Norfolk estate unless reporting to police or attending court. The house arrest was ordered by UK authorities pending their decision to allow Assange to be extradited to Sweden for questioning.
From the confines of the manor, Assange, as the editor in chief of WikiLeaks, has overseen the release of the Spy Files, the Global Intelligence Files, the Guantanamo Files, and, notoriously, the Cablegate Files – and in doing so has brought scathing criticism upon the US government, intelligence companies and the military.
The exhaustive legal case that has recently taken place in the UK Supreme Court has not been conducted with the intention of addressing the rape and misdemeanor allegations put forward by Sofia Wilen and Anna Ardin, but has instead concerned a technical issue asking the question: is the European Arrest Warrant (EWA), which Stockholm’s Prosecutor Marianne Ny issued for Assange, valid?
Put simply, can the Swedish prosecutor be defined as a ‘judicial authority’? The answer, delivered yesterday, is yes. Assange will now most certainly be extradited to Sweden for ‘questioning’ – not for prosecution, because, in reality, he has not been charged with any crime, anywhere.
Assange’s legal team may opt to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, but for now his lawyer, Dinah Rose, has requested that his extradition be delayed for two weeks so that she may argue a legal technicality raised during the hearing. However many commentators have suggested that she has little chance of success.
The allegations Assange will be answering to are surrounded with suspicion. It was on August 20 in 2010 that Julian Assange was accused of ‘unfreedom’ (a misdemeanour crime under Swedish law) in relation to Anna Ardin and of the rape and sexual assault of Sofia Wilen.
‘Rape’, by Swedish definition, is not necessarily an act of violence, as its anecdotal interpretation suggests. Rather, it can be an act of coercion or ‘surprise’. Rape, in Assange’s case, is an instance of consensual sex where the use of a condom is in question.
In the case of his sexual relations with Wilen, she reported to police that although he wore a condom the first time he had refused to wear a condom the second time. The first complainant, Ardin, revealed to a newspaper after the police visit, “He is not violent, and I do not feel threatened by him.” When Claes Borgstrom, the lawyer for the two women, was asked to comment on Ardin’s seemingly disculpatory statement, he dismissed her revelation, saying the complainant “is not a jurist”.
For many observers, it seemed difficult to comprehend how the prosecution could continue with the case after Ardin’s statement – especially in light of the suspicious timeline of events. Ardin, a member of the Social Democrat Party organized the conference Assange spoke at, and Sofia Wilen attended.
Twitter posts and text messages between the women give a damning contradiction of crimes they allege Assange committed. On August 14 2010, the day following the alleged molestation, Ardin organized a party for Assange – during which she boasted on Twitter that she was with “the world’s coolest smartest people, it’s amazing!” She later attempted to delete this post – as well as the Twitter post announcing the party after the story broke.
The second complainant, Sofia Wilen, had breakfast with Assange after the alleged ‘rape’ took place on August 16, and then paid for his train ticket home.
On August 18 Ardin and Wilen became aware of the fact that they had both slept with Assange in close succession and on August 20 both women filed a rape complaint against Assange. The story was broken by the Swedish tabloid Expressen at 5am the following day.
Ardin’s SMS history contains texts in which the two women organised a visit to the police station where they intended to ask how they could force Assange to take a test for sexually transmitted diseases – a method that can be used by the complainants to escape criminal charges in the event that a ‘rape’ report is found to be false. Phone records then revealed a conversation between Ardin and Wilen, discussing the possibility of leaking the rape story to the Swedish tabloid Expressen.
On August 21, Stockholm’s Chief Prosecutor, Eva Finne, reviewed the complaints against Assange and closed the case immediately. Finne stated that the rape allegations were ‘groundless’.
However, Claes Borgstrom – celebrity lawyer and Social Democratic Party spokesperson on gender equality issues – successfully appealed to reopen the case against Assange, this time with Marianne Ny, a Social Democrat member, as prosecutor. Borgstrom is now the legal representative for the two women and the Social Democratic Party has been campaigning for the legal definition of rape to be widened.
There have been numerous irregularities of conduct throughout the case. The accusation of rape was immediately and unlawfully leaked to the Swedish media by Stockholm’s prosecutor-on-duty, Maria Häljebo Kjellstrand, and Swedish tabloid Expressen published the story that night. Hours later there were 5 million online references to ‘Assange+rape’ and in June 2011, a Google search of ‘WikiLeaks+rape’ reached 11 million hits.
Former Swedish judge, Brita Sundberg-Weitman has objected to the way the case has been handled, exposing Marianne Ny’s vested interest in the case: “It is a fact that people like Marianne Ny and Claes Borgstrom have worked in cooperation on different issues in efforts to produce our new, more stringent sexual offence laws.”
Ny herself is chief of a prosecution “development center” specialising in sexual offences. Importantly, Sundberg-Weitman points out the EAW cannot be used purely for the purpose of ‘questioning’, which Ny claimed is her intention. It is designed for the purpose of prosecution only. Nonetheless, because the EAW has been issued, the evidence underlying the rape case in Sweden does not take priority and cannot be considered in the proceedings.
So why didn’t the prosecutor question Assange to start off with?
Assange made himself available to answer to allegations for five weeks before requesting – and being granted – permission to leave Sweden. He even offered himself for interview on September 15 in 2010. Questioning was still possible when he left, as Skype and a telephone call are considered valid means of interrogation.
What has been achieved by this exhaustive (and expensive) case, and by Julian Assange’s house arrest? And what is Sweden’s agenda in bringing Assange directly into the country?
For starters, the US has apparently had a secret indictment against Assange for over a year now. Earlier this year, StratFor – a global intelligence company, or a sort of ‘shadow CIA’ – recently faced the hacking of millions of their confidential emails at the hands of hacker group Anonymous. StratFor has. among its clients, the Unites States Government, Apple, and the U.S Airforce. One of the more notable communications comes from StratFor’s vice-president Fred Burton, which reads: “Not for Pub — We have a sealed indictment on Assange. Pls protect.”
Among other things, the StratFor emails outline the methods used to undermine Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Tactics such as “Take down the money. Go after his infrastructure”, implicate StratFor in the creation of the financial blockade (activated by MasterCard, Visa, PayPal and more) currently starving WikiLeaks of 95% of its usual income.
In the same email, Burton says: “The tools we are using to nail and de-construct Wiki are the same tools used to dismantle and track aQ [Al Qaeda].” The emails pen Assange as a ‘peacenik’ and a ‘terrorist’. According to Burton: “Assange is going to make a nice bride in prison. Screw the terrorist. He’ll be eating cat food forever.”
It is important to note that WikiLeaks broke no laws by releasing US State Department cables in 2011. WikiLeaks uses drop-box technology to obtain documents from its sources, and as such is technologically unable to identify their sources – and, although the documents may have been sent in breach of U.S law, the First Amendment protects the publication of those documents and the publisher.
But Stratfor’s Vice-President of Public Policy, Bart Mongoven, says Assange should face “whatever trumped up charge is available to get this guy and his servers off the streets.” And of Private Bradley Manning, who is currently facing trial for supposedly leaking thousands of embarrassing U.S State Department cables, Mongoven says: “I’d feed that shithead soldier to the first pack of wild dogs I could find.”
The prospect of Assange being extradited to the U.S is alarming. Strangely, on New Years Eve 2011, Barack Obama quite rapidly signed a significant act – the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – into United States law.
Justin Amash – a current Member of Congress, whose committee assignments include both Homeland Security and Military and Veterans Affairs – has been openly critical of the NDAA in its current form. He points out that the NDAA is a game changer for US security in that it empowers the President to detain anyone who he feels “substantially supported” groups that he suspects are “associated forces” of terrorists.
So, anyone seen to have “supported” al-Qaeda or the Taliban or anyone “engaged in hostilities” against the United States or even its “coalition partners” can be indefinitely detained, without charge, at the President’s discretion.
The bill does not attempt to define any of its significant terms, but one concern is that Assange may be a victim of the NDAA and its broad terminology. Through his role in WikiLeaks, and his supposed conspiring with Bradley Manning in the release of sensitive American military documents – such as the “Collateral Murder” video, the Afghan war documents, and the Iraq War documents – the NDAA could in fact define Assange as a terrorist; a term that many American politicians have already used to describe him.
Crucially, at Manning’s hearing on March 15, the ‘enemy’ who Manning is alleged to have aided was defined, finally, as Al-Qaeda.
A member of Assange’s legal team, Jennifer Robinson, had voiced fears of a US indictment long before the StratFor messages were leaked. She said in mid-February: “Australians need only look at the way Bradley Manning is being treated in a US prison in order to understand what may happen to Julian if he ends up in the US.”
According to Marines involved, Bradley Manning, who has been kept under solitary maximum custody since July 2010, was kept naked over two nights in a solitary cell for fear he would try to hang himself with his underwear. This was considered ‘suicide watch’ – something that medical staff advised against.
Private Manning, yet to be found guilty of the charges – has been in custody since May 2010. Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, finished a 14-month investigation on the conditions Manning is being kept under, and has formally accused the US government of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The primary evidence that is being used to incriminate Manning is an online conversation with hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned this evidence, and consequently Manning, in to the FBI.
At Bradley Manning’s committal hearing just prior to Christmas, his defense lawyer Mr. Coombs opened by accusing the investigating officer of trying to pressure Manning into criminally implicating Julian Assange. Since the investigating officer is an employee of the Department of Justice, which has an ongoing criminal investigation into Julian Assange – the investigating officer’s employer had an interest in driving Bradley Manning to make a plea bargain which would incriminate Assange.
Essentially, Manning’s defense lawyer says Bradley is being mistreated and overcharged (that is, 150 years plus life in prison) for reasons of expediency. When Fred Burton from StratFor wrote in June 2010:“We COULD have a sealed indictment and lock him up. Depends upon how far along the military case is”, Burton further exposed the connection between Manning and Assange’s respective legal battles.
So, what is the danger now that Assange will be extradited to Sweden? They can ask their questions, but if the case is so flimsy, won’t it just fall apart?
If Assange were taken to Sweden, he would be isolated indefinitely, kept in incommunicado detention, and thereafter a trial would take place in private, where political parties must appoint untrained jurors. Theoretically, Sweden shouldn’t be able to hand Assange over to the United States.
Sweden, being a signatory of the European Arrest Warrant, would ordinarily have to get the UK to permit any onward extraditing of a detainee. However, the U.S has a separate bilateral treaty with Sweden. This treaty grants the temporary surrender of a prisoner – where Assange may be handed to the U.S on a ‘loan’ basis.
What will happen if Assange is ‘borrowed’ by the U.S?
Since December 2010, a grand jury in Virginia has met to deliberate over charges that can be brought against Assange and those associated with WikiLeaks. Potentially, the State Department could have Assange prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, for releasing information detrimental to foreign relations.
The Espionage Act says it is a crime for anyone with unauthorized possession of information on US national defense to communicate it to others, or to refuse to give it back once they’re aware it could cause damage to the US. Interestingly, Assange received a letter from the US State Department prior to the publication of the 250, 000 Cablegate documents warning him that he was jeopardizing national security – so the Espionage Act could definitely apply.
Are these fears of extradition from Sweden to the US founded? The UK and Sweden have both refused to guarantee Assange security from US extradition. Prosecutor Marianne Ny initially said that US extradition was ‘out of the question’ after issuing the Interpol Red Notice and EAW for Assange – but this statement was revised thereafter.
The prospect of Sweden consenting to ‘loan’ Julian Assange to the US is best understood in light of Sweden’s close political ties with the US. Not long ago, for instance, Sweden violated international treaties and surrendered two refugees to the CIA at the request of the US, and, under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the refugees were then tortured.
Sweden hasn’t refused an extradition request from the US since the year 2000. Foreign nationals have fewer rights than civilians in both Sweden and in the US – particularly since 9/11 – so extradition to either country is an alarming prospect for Assange.
To say the least, Wednesday’s verdict has left Assange’s fate hanging in the balance now more than ever before.